A New Take on the Emperors: Revising China’s Feudal History

The “revival” narrated in the museum exhibit is also built on a new kind of memory of China’s imperial past (from roughly 221 BCE to 1911).

In the Mao era, China’s long dynastic history was usually denigrated as a time when the Chinese people suffered under the yoke of feudalism and the aristocratic, land-owning class, in league with the ruling imperial houses, oppressed the peasants.

Today, this Maoist view of the imperial past has been replaced with a much more positive and lustrous image that reflects China’s new global, “imperial” aspirations in the present.

The prefatory hall of the Road to Revival exhibit presents two giant murals: one called Ancient Glory and the other Contemporary Resplendence. In between the two murals is a sculpture entitled “For the Great Revival of the Chinese People."

[The “For the Great Revival of the Chinese People” sculpture (foreground) and the Contemporary Resplendence mural (background). Photo by Kirk Denton, Nov. 2011]. 

The juxtaposition of the two murals suggests that what is being “revived” in China today is the greatness and ancient glory of China’s past lost to Western and Japanese imperialism. The restoration of Confucianism—an ethical, social, and political philosophy associated with Confucius (551-479 BCE) that often served to buttress imperial rule by emphasizing concepts of loyalty and filial piety—both in Party and popular discourse, parallels this revisionist view of the imperial past.

[Sculpture of Confucius in the outdoor courtyard of the National Museum of China. Photo by Kirk Denton, Nov. 2011]. 

The National Museum of China brings together what were, in the museum’s earlier phase, two separate museums, one that deals with the imperial past and one on modern history. Now the museum-goer can stroll seamlessly from the Ancient China exhibit, which glorifies the imperial past, right into the Road to Revival exhibit.

History museums in many other parts of the world tell stories that whitewash the past and remove from it uncomfortable elements that do not sit well with the political status quo in the present. But the Road to Revival exhibit is particularly egregious in displaying a standard Party line on the meaning of the past.

Though the endpoint has shifted from Maoist “socialism” to the “socialist market economy,” the basic parameters of the narrative remain largely the same. The promise of a more confident historical narrative that confronts uncomfortable facets of the Maoist past and Chinese neoliberal present are clearly not fulfilled in the exhibit.

It should be said that in some other museums—say, the Shanghai Municipal History Museum—radically new historical narratives have replaced the tired Maoist tropes of imperialist oppression and national liberation. However, they also whitewash the past of its trauma.

But the National Museum of China, a cultural institution that is directly under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and therefore subject to review by a number of central CCP offices, is simply too close to the core of Party power to allow curators leeway to redefine the nature of historical representation.

National Dreams versus Personal Dreams

In giving his first China Dream speech in the Road to Revival exhibit—standing before photographs of Deng Xiaoping and a placard that reads “Taking the Path of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”—Xi Jinping suggested that the formulation of dreams in the present and their realization in the future are predicated on overcoming the past.

China’s revival can only occur once that past, especially the “century of humiliation” during which China was cajoled by Western and Japanese imperialists, has been fully and properly put behind it. It is the story of that past and the overcoming that is narrated in Road to Revival.

The view of modern Chinese history presented at the National Museum of China may be retrograde and propagandistic, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore or dismiss it.

That the history of imperialism is still viewed as a burden to China’s emergence on the world scene, for instance, helps explain China’s recent provocations over the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea with its Asian neighbors.

It also reflects a longstanding proclivity to use historical narratives as a tool for political legitimization that is as much a product of the Confucian tradition as it is of Marxism-Leninism.

China is becoming an increasingly liberal society, but it is naïve to expect the CCP to embrace a pluralistic view of history—the kind that is sometimes found in state museums in democratic Taiwan.

The idea that the past can be viewed from multiple angles and that various communities in the present have vested interests in the past is, of course, one that is foreign to the political culture of a single-party state, especially one that has now explicitly embraced a Confucian ethical discourse of social harmony and loyalism. Such a state speaks for those communities and is loath to allow them to speak for themselves.

Herein lies the obvious difference between the China Dream and its American counterpart.

“History tells us,” says Xi Jinping, “that the future fate of every person is intimately intertwined with the future fate of this country and the future fate of this people. If the country and the people are doing well, then everyone will do well.”

The revival of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation depicted in Road to Revival is mounted as a backdrop for the realization of the individual dreams of the Chinese people today and in the future.

Chinese citizens are told: your personal success is not just something you earn by dint of hard work and ingenuity; it is built on the foundation of a shared history—ancient glory, imperialist humiliation, and national revival—and can come to you only when the nation itself has arrived.

The personal dreams of Chinese today are fueled by mass media, which hype wealth, entrepreneurship, and love. Popular films such as Tiny Times propagate an ideology of personal happiness achieved through career, friendship, and love, avenues that would seem to have little connection to the nation.

In an era when young people don’t know or care much about history, the China Dream is perhaps a desperate attempt to make the nation and the CCP matter. To tie personal dreams to the “great revival of the Chinese people,” a phrase Xi uses seven times in his short speech, is to reinsert the Chinese people into a narrative of modern history in which the CCP is the main protagonist.

Many in China mock the very notion of the China Dream or are cynical about the possibility of fulfilling their own personal dreams in a society that doesn’t seem to care about them.

In a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times, the writer Yu Hua tells the story of a friend whose life-long dream has been to vote in an election. Yu Hua concludes that the China Dream should be all “dreams dreamed in China,” even if those dreams—such as the dream of participating in an election—fit poorly with Xi’s dream of national renewal.

But the term China Dream may indeed prove to be an effective marketing device for the Party because it is malleable and multidimensional enough to mean something to everyone.

Like its American counterpart, it is optimistic about the future and draws on powerful narratives about the past. It also suggests that you can have your cake and eat it too—that is, you can both pursue your personal dreams and at the same time contribute to the national dream.

In this respect, it is different from Mao-era collectivism, in which the individual subsumed his or her personal desires into those of the group.

Getting individuals to buy into the China Dream means ridding the past and present of its trauma and tragedy and forging a happy, sanguine story of revival and arrival.

Xi Jinping’s speech is also a recognition that the future of the CCP rests on making individuals happy and wealthy. This is the deal with the devil that the Chinese people make with the CCP.

But what will happen if the party fails to fulfill the dreams of China’s people to enter middle-class consumer heaven?

Read More from Kirk Denton:

Exhibiting the Past: Historical Memory and the Politics of Museums in Postsocialist China

(University of Hawaii Press, 2014)